The story of Summit Lake Vineyards is not a straight forward story of starting a winery. Rather it is a culmination of having a vision, being disappointed, having a solid work ethic and abounding creativity to arrive at their end destination of having a family winery.
It started with an interest in wine by Bob and Sue Brakesman who after graduation took a trip to South America. They spent many hours sipping wine and enjoying small family wineries throughout Peru, Chili and Argentina. The hook was set as Bob began dreaming of owning a vineyard and winery.
On November 12, 1971, Sue’s birthday, she returned home to find Bob there asking her to open her birthday card. Inside was a deed to Summit Lake Vineyards. It outlined the 28 acres of land, eight of which were planted pre-prohibition with Zinfandel, fruit trees, a chicken house, walnut groves and a house built in the 1880’s.
That Christmas Eve, they left San Jose and made their way to Howell Mountain. Upon arriving at the muddy driveway entrance, they realized that the property had been abandoned for over thirty years and was overtaken by manzanita, poison oak and assorted weeds. Even the house had fallen into total disrepair and was filthy. That evening, it was freezing cold with the fireplace barely working. They strategically placed pots and pans to catch the leaks from the roof/ceiling. That next morning with a fresh dusting of snow, their enthusiasm was restored viewing the beauty and tranquility of the snow covered property.
Bob and Sue took on the challenge and began the transformation of the property and the house. Bob found a pre-world war II tractor in the overgrown brush. He finally got it working and began to clear the land. Mind you this took two years!! He first brought the old eight acres of Zinfandel back to life. After their day time jobs, they worked tirelessly from 6 pm to midnight daily grafting their own vines. With help of friends who ventured up to the ranch, they completed row after row. It took three years to plant thirteen acres of new vines!! That culminated in eleven being Zinfandel and two of Cabernet Sauvignon.
When the vines needed water Bob went to work for a company that installed irrigation systems to acquire practical knowledge. That company had a policy of burying leftover pipes and fitting because it was too costly to dig up and return to the warehouse. An opportunity arose for Bob to bring home daily on the back of a flatbed truck all the irrigation needed to run the vineyard. As the vineyard matured Bob needed to get some practical experience honing his winemaking skills. He took a position as cellar foreman at Freekmark Abbey. He spent six years soaking up knowledge and techniques that would come into play in the future.
A Family Winery Is Finally Established
During the crush of 1975, their first son was born. Three years later their first commercial release was a 1978 Zinfandel. The wine won a Double Gold Medal at the California State Fair. It sold out in a mere eight days! The dream took more time and energy than initially anticipated but their vision and goal never wavered and they were on their way. They erected a full winery operation a few years later that was finished in 1985. Thus bonded winery #5255 was realized.
The complete, longer story, worth reading, is at:
2021 is their 50th year of Summit Lake Vineyards. It is still today a family run business with Brian Brakesman as the winemaker. Brian’s career started at Beringer and Domain Chandon. In 2005 he was the assistant winemaker at Duckhorn Wine’s Paraduxx and Golden Eye. In 2007 Brian moved to Ledson Winery as their winemaker. All top notch wineries in Sonoma and Napa Valleys. Brian returned to Summit Lake in 2010 to join the family winery. Bob still assists in the winery and does most of the farming. Heather, the daughter manages the wine business after the wine is bottled.
Today they are producing Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel Port, Petite Sirah and a couple of Rosés. Being a family run business, most of the wines are named for Bob and Sue’s granddaughters: Emily Kestrel, Clair Riley, Sophia Lynn, Blythe Susan and grandson Ben and Shane.
The 2017 Summit Lake Vineyards Zinfandel
This wine comes from vines that Bob first planted in 1973. They are old gnarly vines reaching far into the earth to extract beautiful flavors and aromas. While perhaps short on fruit output, the qualitative grapes far outshine your typical tonnage per acre. Brian usually uses French oak at approximately 50% being new. Aging is dependent on the year but runs between 18-24 months. Brian believes that this Zinfandel will last ten or more years. On the eyes, a lush purple coloring and medium viscosity. On the nose, fruits of raspberry and blueberry provide a beautiful aroma. On the palate, not your “Amador fruit bomb” but a restrained soft sweetness followed by an earthiness of dust and minerality (due to age of vines), followed by spicy notes of espresso, faint vanilla and cinnamon. The finish was strangely unique with tannins and structure not commonly found in Zinfandel. This is probably the reason Brian believes it will age for ten plus years. The wine lists for $42 on their website.
The Food and Wine Pairing
Paired with slow cooked red wine braised bone-in beef short ribs. Ingredients included olive oil, yellow onions, baby mushrooms, minced garlic, Cabernet Sauvignon, beef broth, dried oregano, dried thyme, dried rosemary, dried marjoram and bay leaves. Slow cooked for 8-10 hours. The meat literally fell off the bone and was delicious. Accompanied with mashed potatoes and a fresh garden salad with red green tomatoes. The Zinfandel added a touch of spice to the food pairing but did not overwhelm the meat.
Looking forward to tasting some of their other wines in the near future!